John A. Wheeler passed this week. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the physicist who coined the word “black hole”, along with “worm hole”. Rumored to have invented the liver loaf on whole wheat, topped with quantum foam. Actually, that part I made up (although he is associated with the foam part).
Part of this peripatetic life we live is trying to keep up with the passings. Our lives are so full of the lives of so many others. They come and go each day—to our great good fortune, filling our lives, making us wholer-than-before; unfortunately, many of them never return, leaving voids which, though not quite black holes, can still suck some of the life from us.
Because our world is so vast and because there are so many passings, trying to make note of which passing is noteworthy—and why—can be a full time activity. I don’t know if you have the time, but I generally don’t. Fueling my ever-accreting sense of insensitivity and sensory overload. Thus (I guess) in the case of Wheeler, I will invest a few seconds—registered in these sentences. I can begin (and nearly end) with the obit, as physics is not my field. According to the text, Wheeler was among the major players of his age. Tabbed as physics’ “most imaginative adman. He was also science’s Zelig, seeming to be present at every important event or discovery.” Consorting, did he, with Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Albert Einstein.
Pretty heady stuff (pun intended?) if you think about it.
Among Wheeler’s headiest moments was his query: “Would anything exist if mankind—the observer/participator—wasn’t around to see it?”
Wheeler seems to have come to this insight via the fact that electrons behaved in bizarre ways: they could be wave or particle, and, more—they could be anywhere, everywhere or nowhere, depending on the position of the observer. If this was true, Wheeler extrapolated, then perhaps “reality” as we know it comes into existence only because of us: our status as extant beings, our presence in the face of the phenomenon. Reality is because—and only because—we are here to witness it. In effect, reality is an artifact of human existence.
Hey, Professor Wheeler: welcome to contemporary sociology.
I say that because Wheeler’s insight, though profound, was not entirely unique. Other intellectuals—a couple of sociologists named Berger and Luckmann—to name two—claimed that reality was a product of collective efforts—“social construction” they called it. Things in the social world gain their status as social thing through the efforts of the human agents who affirm and validate them. Without these human agents, doing this work of affirmation and meaning conferral, the thing wouldn’t exist—or at least would not exist as we understand it. Think of . . . for instance . . . genocide, or a “just war” . . . or pornography . . . or leisure time . . . or . . . how about the Internet. Without human agents defining these social objects through use, interpretation and attribution, these things would not exist—at least not as they currently do.
Well, this is slightly different than what Wheeler was getting at. For Berger and Luckmann, things that Wheeler asserted don’t exist—because no one was there to witness them—might still exist. For instance, Berger and Luckmann probably wouldn’t agree with Wheeler that those two young women breaking down and then redressing the mannequin after work hours didn’t exist simply because no photographer happened past their storefront at the precise time they were conducting their business.
After all, Wheeler’s account would sound daft to the guy who passed the mannequin the next day and noted that she was dressed and posed differently, in a different location, than the day before . . . sure, he didn’t actually see the undressing and rearranging transpire, but clearly a change occurred. By who and how we may not know—it might have been divine intervention—but something did happen.
So, maybe this guy Wheeler was not as smart as we all thought. Or maybe, inside-out, he wanted to make things a little more intellectually challenging by excluded the God thesis; no pat explanations possible save that which we could come up with by rolling up our sleeves and wiping the sweat off our furrowed brows. In this way, maybe Wheeler was demanded that we can only count those things that are actually observable, recordable, “proven” through the physical means available. It is likely that, as a physicist, Wheeler would not have wanted to bow to the ultimate (and simplistic safety-hatch) that our world is regulated—and fully explainable—by forces that cannot be discerned. Who among puzzle solvers likes to hear that human existence and/or invisible, though natural processes, are irrelevent because some unaccountable super-natural being is pulling all the strings?
No matter where one comes out on that debate, it could also be the case that the laws of physics differ from those of society. Perhaps people are made of electrons, but do not act like electrons.
Therein lies the makings of a social philosophy. And it is that prospect that Wittgenstein helped us stumble into when he argued that humans really couldn’t know the nature of the thing being observed unless they were a part of it. Well, Wittgenstein said a lot more than that—and differently—but this is how it came to be understood by social scientists of the non-positivist persuasion in the 1970s and ‘80s. Over time, Wittgenstein’s “language game” got elevated to the fore, then reduced to the concept of “subjectivity”—in contradistinction to what is objective, or externally knowable. For the intellectual guerrillas hoisting the positivists with their own petard, they twisted Wittgenstein into the view that the ability to “measure” something using “tools” and “procedures” “from the outside” might actually hamper true understanding. Measurement was one thing, they argued; meaning was another, entirely.
Or so they claimed.
For a Wittgenstein-influenced social observer, passing the mannequin and witnessing the act of undressing and redressing and posing would not be enough. Making sense of the act would be the goal. And to do that, one would have to be a part of the language game—to understand not simply words like “mannequin” and “dresser” and “storefront display” and “pose” and “undressing” and “dressing” and “modeling” and “sale”—but the deeper position of these word-objects in the culture—the larger social world, the language game—of which they are a part.
For Wittgenstein, Wheeler’s witnessing would not suffice. In his view regular language-games one might participate in could run an extraordinary gamut—all with differing meanings, implications, and outcomes. For instance, one might participate in such a game by:
- reporting it as an event
- speculating about it
- forming and testing a hypothesis
- making up a story
- reading it
- play-acting (with or through it)
- singing catches
- guessing riddles
- making a joke
Applied to the mannequin un/dressing depicted here—and working through the many permutations—I am led to conclude that it is not enough to follow the physicist-just-passed in saying “I witness, therefore reality exists.”
In the social world it is necessary to go one step beyond and say: “I witness, realities exist . . . now what?”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.